Review: A Hot Date with King Crimson

King Crimson at the Chicago Theatre, June 28, 2017.

This was the eighth time I’ve heard King Crimson in concert — and, for me, the best.  Pretty much the entire night was a peak experience, miles ahead of any previous rock show I’ve seen in my forty years of concert-going.

Why?  Because this incarnation of Crimson can play it all, from the muted to the majestic to the metallic.  And because they did play it all — fluent, ferocious, daring and delicate by turns (and sometimes all at once).  Nearly three hours of an utterly unique band hitting one high point after the other, in thoroughly unpredictable fashion.

[Note that setlist spoilers follow the jump.]

The opening “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One” was a microcosm of the whole show.  At once looser and more pointed than the version I heard in 2014, the inviting gamelans & bells of the opening blossomed through Robert Fripp’s encroaching power chords into crunchy full band riffs, as the tempo and energy ratcheted up mercilessly.  Then — at just the right point! — it all gave way to a whimsical Mel Collins flute solo (complete with puckish quote of “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town”) and a last, shuddering crescendo.  It felt inevitable, but it couldn’t have been foreseen — which is why it was so satisfying.

The rest of the first half showcased Crimson as a tight, high-powered chamber ensemble — a loud one, with three drummers up front!  Gavin Harrison laid down the rhythmic foundations with style, precision and technique to spare; Pat Mastoletto delved deep into sonic anarchy, tossing in electronica beats and whacking hand-held percussion at every opportunity.  Maybe it’s just the John Bonham-style bowler hat, but newcomer Jeremy Stacey seemed to serve up a meatier backbeat than Bill Rieflin, along with hard driving cymbal time for jazzier pieces.  When the front line combined for big unison moments or tossed the beat across the stage to each other, it was exhilarating to hear and to watch.

The exploration continued with Jakko Jakszyk essaying his first Adrian Belew-era vocal on “Neurotica,” then introducing the seductively contrapuntal, brand-new “Radical Action III.”  Digging into the era of Lizard, “Cirkus” and the extended “Battle of Glass Tears” featured Rieflin in his new role of keyboard player, joined by Stacey and Fripp on atmospheric Mellotron and electric piano, with Collins soaring and searing over the top and Tony Levin laying down rich, impeccable bass work.  Another helping of heavy (“Fallen Angel,” marked by another great vocal, and an unstoppable “Larks’ Tongues Part 2”) brought the audience to their feet — only to be collectively gobsmacked by an utterly serene “Islands.”  Jakko provided the night’s most lyrical singing, Stacey held the crowd spellbound with gorgeous solo piano, and a marvelous time was had by all.

How to top that?  Well, after intermission and a viciously rhythmic “Pictures of A City,” a different Crimson showed up, pivoting from precision-tooled ensemble to free jazz collective.  After the drum line played hot potato with the opening solo section, “Indiscipline” grooved like mad, with Jakko scat-singing Belew’s lyrics and Collins swinging the riffs.  “Easy Money” surged forward, nearly collapsed in a clatter of percussion, reformed around a cuttingly melodic Fripp solo and Jakszyk’s wordless howl, and sprinted over the finish line.  A pensive backline interlude (Collins and Jakszyk on flutes, with Fripp, Rieflin and Levin skittering around them) became “The Letters;” Collins shone again on multiple saxes, with Levin playing off him to stunning effect.

Gathering themselves for the final push, Crimson locked together again for the intricacies of “Meltdown/Radical Action II.” A remorseless “Level Five” featured everybody: guitars and drums (plus Rieflin on white noise keyboard) tossing rhythmic licks back and forth; Fripp and Levin shredding in unison; Collins tossing off still more compelling improv.  Like the opening “Larks’ Tongues,” the closing “Starless” encapsulated Crimson’s approach in 15 unforgettable minutes, the melancholy song evolving through that tense, yearning unison riff to the ecstatic release of Collins’ and Fripp’s committed, intense solos.

A straight-forward “Heroes” and a dazzling workout on “21st Century Schizoid Man” (with final solos by Fripp and Collins, Levin making the bass line completely his own and Harrison providing a drum solo you actually wanted to go longer), and the show was done.  As the band took bows and pictures (and the audience reciprocated),  the night felt complete.  King Crimson had brought more than 3,000 people from quiet to loud, from low to high, through angst to ecstasy again and again.  Seriously, there is no better band on the planet right now; if you have any interest in their music, I’d argue that you need to hear them live — if not now, when they return to the States in the fall.

P.S.  Tony Levin agrees with me: “Tonight’s show at the Chicago Theater was one of our best.”  Check out his pre-show and post-show photos (I’m in the back row of the main floor, five seats to the left of the center aisle — yeah, that indistinct blob in the KC polo shirt and hat):


13 thoughts on “Review: A Hot Date with King Crimson

    1. kruekutt

      Grand Rapids, Michigan — about 3 hours east. An awful lot of bands don’t come to GR or the Detroit area anymore — the last time Crimson came through Michigan was in 2003. I’ve been heading over to Chicago a least once a year to see bands like them, Steven Wilson, Marillion, Transatlantic, etc. for quite a while now. Hoping to get back there for this year’s Progtoberfest, but that’s not finalized yet.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bryan Morey

        I went to college in southern MI, and it seemed like if any prog bands came to the state it was to the Detroit metro area. I would have much preferred to drive to GR than to Detroit. It seemed like a major highway was completely shut down each time I went to Detroit.

        Ian Anderson is playing in Interlochen (near Traverse City) and Grand Rapids in August, as well as at the Chicago Theatre. He always puts on a good show.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. kruekutt

    Bryan, I grew up in Detroit, so I remember those major freeway shutdowns. GR apparently had a pretty strong prog fan base from the 70s (when the Moodies & Crimson played at a large local church) into at least the early 90s — it was one of the places Fish-era Marillion broke big in the US, mostly due to an influential local DJ. Things are perking up a bit — I saw Steve Hackett at a new concert venue here in February, and as you say, Ian Anderson is coming here right before he plays the Chicago Theatre. His show is sold out, so I won’t be there unless I get lucky.

    Liked by 1 person

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